Congress Racing to Close Stimulus Deal




Congress Reaches Deal on $900 Billion Coronavirus Relief Plan

Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, said on Sunday evening the stimulus package would include direct payments for Americans.

More help is on the way. Moments ago, in consultation with our committees, the four leaders of the Senate and the House finalized an agreement. It would be another major rescue package for the American people. As our citizens continue battling this coronavirus this holiday season, they will not be fighting alone. We’ve agreed to a package of nearly $900 billion. It is packed with targeted policies that help struggling Americans who have already waited entirely too long. For workers at the hardest-hit small businesses, there will be a targeted second draw of the Paycheck Protection Program. We’ve not worked so hard to save as many jobs as possible all these months only to fumble the ball with vaccinations already underway. Speaking of vaccines, we can nullify the success of Operation Warp Speed by falling asleep at the switch on distribution, so this agreement will provide huge sums for the logistics that will get these lifesaving shots to our citizens as fast as possible. Of course, many millions of Americans have lost their jobs and are continuing to lose them through no fault of their own. This package will renew and extend a number of the additional important federal unemployment benefits that have helped families stay afloat. Across all kinds of families, in all kinds of situations, this has been a difficult time across the board. So at the particular request and emphasis President Trump and his administration, our agreement will provide another round of direct-impact payments to help households make ends meet and continue our economic recovery.

Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, said on Sunday evening the stimulus package would include direct payments for Americans.CreditCredit…Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times

WASHINGTON — Congressional leaders said they had reached agreement on Sunday on a $900 billion stimulus package that would provide direct payments and jobless aid to struggling Americans and badly needed funds for small businesses, hospitals, schools and vaccine distribution, overcoming months of stalemate on a measure intended to boost the pandemic-battered economy.

The agreement, struck after a renewed flurry of talks broke a partisan logjam that had persisted since the summer, came hours before the federal government was set to run out of funds. Once drafted, it was expected to be merged with a sweeping catchall spending measure that would keep the government funded for the remainder of the fiscal year, creating a $2.3 trillion behemoth whose passage will be Congress’s last major act before adjourning for the year.

Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, announced the agreement Sunday evening on the Senate floor, declaring, “We can finally report what our nation has needed to hear for a very long time: More help is on the way.”

With additional time needed to transform their agreement into legislative text, both chambers were expected later Sunday to approve a one-day stopgap spending bill — their third such temporary extension the last 10 days — to avoid a government shutdown while they were finalizing the deal.

The House could vote as early as Monday on the final spending package, and the Senate was expected to follow shortly afterward, sending it to President Trump for his signature.

While the text was not immediately available, the agreement was expected to provide stimulus payments of $600 to American adults and children and revive supplemental federal unemployment benefits at $300 per week — half the level of aid delivered by the $2.2 trillion stimulus law enacted in March, as the coronavirus pandemic’s devastating health and economic impact was just coming into focus.

It also would extend two federal unemployment programs that expanded and extended regular benefits, and would have lapsed next week without action by Congress. The agreement includes rental and food assistance, as well as billions of dollars for schools and small businesses, reviving the Paycheck Protection Program, a federal loan program that lapsed this year.

While the deal marked a triumphant moment in talks that had long been stalled, it was far narrower than the one Democrats had long insisted upon, and nearly twice the size of the one Republicans had said they could ever accept. Democrats had refused for months to scale back their demands for a multitrillion-dollar package, citing the devastating toll of the virus, and Republicans dug in against another large infusion of federal aid, pointing to the growing deficit.

But in the end, the crucial breakthrough came just before midnight on Saturday, when Republicans dropped an effort to ban the Federal Reserve from establishing certain emergency lending programs to help stabilize the economy in the future.

Mr. McConnell said the two parties were still finalizing text as of dinnertime in Washington, and he did not indicate when they would formally introduce a bill or bring it up for a vote.

“I’m hopeful we can do this as promptly as possible,” Mr. McConnell said.

Credit…Elijah Nouvelage/Reuters

President Trump on Friday discussed naming Sidney Powell, who as a lawyer for his campaign team unleashed conspiracy theories about a Venezuelan plot to rig voting machines in the United States, to be a special counsel overseeing an investigation of voter fraud, according to two people briefed on the discussion.

It was unclear if Mr. Trump will move ahead with such a plan.

Most of his advisers opposed the idea, two of the people briefed on the discussion said, including Rudolph W. Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer. Mr. Giuliani joined the discussion by phone initially, while Ms. Powell was at the White House for a meeting that became raucous and involved people shouting at each other at times, according to one of the people briefed on what took place.

Ms. Powell’s client, retired Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, the former national security adviser whom the president recently pardoned, was also there, two of the people briefed on the meeting said. Some senior administration officials drifted in and out of the meeting.

During an appearance on the conservative Newsmax channel this week, Mr. Flynn pushed for Mr. Trump to impose martial law and deploy the military to “rerun” the election. At one point in the meeting on Friday, Mr. Trump asked about that idea.

Ms. Powell’s ideas were shot down by every other Trump adviser present, all of whom repeatedly pointed out that she had yet to back up her claims with proof. At one point, one person briefed on the meeting said, she produced several affidavits, but upon inspection they were all signed by a man she has previously used as an expert witness, whose credentials have been called into question.

The White House counsel, Pat A. Cipollone, and the White House chief of staff, Mark Meadows, repeatedly and aggressively pushed back on the ideas being proposed, which went beyond the special counsel idea, those briefed on the meeting said.

The baseless claims that Ms. Powell and others have made of widespread fraud have been thoroughly debunked and even many of Mr. Trump’s closest allies have dismissed as preposterous her tale of an international conspiracy to rig the vote.

The idea that Mr. Trump would try to install Ms. Powell in a position to investigate the outcome sent shock waves through the president’s circle.

A White House spokesman, Ms. Powell and a spokeswoman for Mr. Giuliani did not respond to requests for comment.

Credit…Hilary Swift for The New York Times

His economic and environment teams are a little left of center. His foreign policy picks fall squarely in the Democratic Party’s mainstream. His top White House aides are Washington veterans.

Taken together, the picture that emerges from President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s initial wave of personnel choices is a familiar, pragmatic and largely centrist one.

Still a work in progress, Mr. Biden’s cabinet is designed to be an extension of his own ideology, rooted in long-held Democratic Party principles but with a greater focus on the plight of working-class Americans, a new sense of urgency about climate change and a deeper empathy about the issues of racial justice that he has said persuaded him to run for the presidency a third time.

His nominees are diverse in ways that appeal to liberals, young voters and people of color. And they are moderate like the swing voters who helped him win in states like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan.

For his cabinet, Mr. Obama assembled outsize personalities like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Robert M. Gates, the defense secretary who was a holdover from the George W. Bush administration.

Mr. Biden’s cabinet so far has no one likely to draw the same kind of high-octane attention. His choices have decades of quiet, behind-the-scenes policymaking experience, matching Mr. Biden’s pledge to return basic competence to the government after four years of Mr. Trump’s chaotic administration.

His nominees and choice of top White House aides make only a nod to the progressive movement in the Democratic Party that helped Mr. Biden win the election. That has left some of the party’s liberals frustrated by what they say is the creation of a new administration dominated by old thinking, unprepared to confront the post-Trumpian world of deeper racial and economic inequities and more entrenched Republican resistance.

“It is still an older, whiter, male-er group in general,” said Varshini Prakash, the executive director and a founder of the Sunrise Movement, a liberal group focused on climate change. “We are never going to develop the leadership we need for decades to come if we keep appointing people who are in their 60s and 70s who have served in multiple administrations already.”

Credit…Amr Alfiky/The New York Times

A day after President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. introduced his climate team, including his pick for energy secretary, Jennifer Granholm, a top Republican on the Senate environmental committee on Sunday criticized her support of investing in clean energy, while also singling her out as he suggested that Mr. Biden’s cabinet nominees could face resistance from Republicans.

Senator John Barrasso, Republican of Wyoming and chair of the environmental committee, highlighted a statement Ms. Granholm had made in 2016 in support of opposition by the Standing Rock Sioux to the building of the Dakota Access pipeline near their reservation.

“We ought to be doing everything we possibly can to keep fossil fuel energy in the ground,” Ms. Granholm said at the time.

Mr. Barrasso criticized the remark, saying it had the potential to damage the American economy.

“The impact of that on our economy, on jobs, it is — it cuts the throat of my state, our economy, the men and women who work there,” he said in an appearance on “Fox News Sunday.” “It’s going to drive up costs significantly for American families.”

Ms. Granholm, in an appearance on ABC’s “This Week,” said she envisioned a transition away from fossil fuels to revitalize the American economy, through efforts to combat climate change and develop sources of clean energy. She estimated that “trillions of dollars” would be spent globally on combating climate change in the coming years.

“Every country is going to be buying solar panels, and they’re going to be buying wind turbines, and they’re going to be buying electric vehicles and the batteries, and they’re going to upgrade their electric grids,” Ms. Granholm said. “We could be producing those products here in the United States, and stamping them ‘Made in America’ and exporting them.”

Without that domestic production, she added, other countries like China could end up dominating the market for renewable energy.

On Saturday, Mr. Biden said he intended to make tackling climate change a cornerstone of his coronavirus recovery action. He called for 500,000 new electric vehicle charging stations, the construction of 1.5 million new energy-efficient homes and public housing units, and the creation of a “civilian climate corps” to carry out climate and conservation projects.

Climate policy is expected to play a critical role in the Biden administration, the president-elect said. He also highlighted the role of Ms. Granholm, the former Michigan governor who is credited with getting the state’s first renewable-energy portfolio standard through a divided legislature, and working with the auto industry to develop electric vehicles.

But Mr. Barrasso suggested, while highlighting Ms. Granholm, that Mr. Biden’s cabinet picks could face a tough confirmation.

“So we’ll have hearings, ask the tough questions, but we are not going to forget what happened with President Trump’s administration and the delayed process that went through it,” he said. “It’s not going to be a garden party if the Republicans are in the majority. These nominees are going to have to run the gauntlet.”

President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. will not discuss the federal investigation of his son Hunter with any of his potential nominees for attorney general, the incoming White House press secretary said on Sunday.

Mr. Biden’s son Hunter disclosed earlier this month that the Justice Department is investigating his tax affairs. The president-elect has previously said he is not concerned about the investigation, but the pledge from the incoming Biden administration is the latest indication that the matter appears likely to hang over Mr. Biden as he takes office.

“Let me be crystal clear,” Jennifer Psaki, Biden’s pick for White House press secretary, said in an appearance on “Fox News Sunday.” “He will not be discussing an investigation of his son with any attorney general candidates.”

“It will be up to the purview of a future attorney general and his administration to determine how to handle any investigation,” she added.

Credit…for The New York Times

As legislators scrambled to deliver badly needed coronavirus relief, President Trump spent the weekend stoking an attempt by his allies to launch one final, doomed challenge to the 2020 election results when Congress meets to count the votes in January.

In a series of tweets and in a brief radio interview, the president lavished praise on Tommy Tuberville, the Alabama Republican senator-elect, and Senator David Perdue, Republican of Georgia, after oblique remarks in which they seemed to endorse an 11th-hour effort to overturn President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s victory during a congressional joint session on Jan. 6.

“David is a great guy and patriot,” Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter, responding to a post by a Democratic operative claiming Mr. Perdue told her he would challenge the Electoral College result. Mr. Trump also shared a series of posts praising Mr. Tuberville, whom he called a “hero” last week.

A small group of House Republicans led by Representative Mo Brooks of Alabama plans to use a process codified in an 1880s law to object to the electoral votes of five key battleground states won by Mr. Biden. Majorities of both the House and Senate would have to agree to do so — an all but impossible prospect. But if a senator agrees to join those House members, they could force a messy final debate on the floor of the House that would force Republican lawmakers to choose between loyalty to Mr. Trump and the democratic process.

Top Senate Republicans, led by Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, began privately lobbying senators against joining the effort this week, warning it would be a futile gesture that could endanger senators up for re-election in 2022. So far, no senator has fully committed to the effort, but Mr. Trump’s weekend tweeting suggested he could ramp up his attempts to recruit one, exacerbating divisions within his party.

After Mr. McConnell publicly congratulated Mr. Biden this week for his election victory, the president publicly told the majority leader to “get tougher” and insisted again, falsely, that he had won the election and that Republicans needed to “fight” to keep him in office.

On Sunday, the president said in a brief radio interview with his personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, that he had spoken with Mr. Tuberville on Saturday, hinting that he was pleased with the Republican for his support. Despite Mr. Trump’s remarks, though, what precisely Mr. Tuberville is willing to do has remained vague. Mr. McConnell is likely to exert pressure on him as well.

“You’ll see what’s coming,” Mr. Tuberville was overheard saying this week on video. “You’ve been reading about it in the House. We’re going to have to do it in the Senate.”

Mr. Perdue’s words carry even less weight. He is facing a runoff on Jan. 5 to save his seat and will not even be a member of the Senate on Jan. 6 when the joint session meets, rendering his promise little more than campaign rhetoric. Even if Mr. Perdue does win his runoff, the results could take weeks to certify.

Still, his position, and Mr. Trump’s interest, could put pressure on Senator Kelly Loeffler, another Georgia Republican facing a Jan. 5 runoff, to follow suit. Because Ms. Loeffler’s race is a special election, she will technically be in her seat on Jan. 6 regardless of the outcome.

Credit…Audra Melton for The New York Times

Rudolph W. Giuliani, President Trump’s personal lawyer, has pressed the Department of Homeland Security to seize possession of voting machines as part of a push to overturn the results of the election, three people familiar with the discussion said. Mr. Giuliani was told the department does not have the authority to do such a thing.

The conversation between Mr. Giuliani and Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, the acting deputy secretary of the Homeland Security Department, took place in the past week, according to the people familiar with the discussion, who were granted anonymity because they were not authorized to describe the conversation.

The department oversees the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, the agency responsible for safeguarding critical systems, such as elections and hospitals.

Mr. Cuccinelli is said to have told Mr. Giuliani that there is no authority by which the agency, which spent the year working with state election officials to prepare for the election, could assert control over voting machines in those states.

It was unclear whether Mr. Trump facilitated the phone call.

Mr. Giuliani called Mr. Cuccinelli this week to push the department to re-examine the machines to find evidence of what the Trump campaign has called widespread fraud, two of the people briefed on the discussion said.

The effort by Mr. Trump’s campaign to use the cybersecurity agency in the push to overturn the results of the election comes after the president last month fired the head of that agency, Christopher C. Krebs. Before he was ousted, Mr. Krebs joined other top election officials in calling the 2020 election “the most secure in American history.”

State and local governments take the lead in managing elections in the United States while the cybersecurity agency primarily provides support, guidance and intelligence with the local leaders on potential threats to the voting system.

“We don’t own those networks and we do not have independent legal authority to go in and start combing through those networks,” said Suzanne Spaulding, an under secretary for cybersecurity and critical infrastructure in the Obama administration. “Efforts that appear to be driving a partisan agenda, particularly completely unfounded allegations, significantly undermine the hard work these men and women have been engaged in for years.”

Mr. Cuccinelli, who led the federal government’s legal immigration agency before rising to become the second highest ranking official in the Homeland Security Department, emerged as one of the public faces of the department’s cybersecurity efforts in the weeks before the election, joining Mr. Krebs in urging patience when it comes to counting the votes.

Credit…Adriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times

The Trump administration is rushing to approve a final wave of large-scale mining and energy projects on federal lands, encouraged by investors who want to try to ensure the projects move ahead even after President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. takes office.

In Arizona, the Forest Service is preparing to sign off on the transfer of federal forest land — considered sacred by a neighboring Native American tribe — to allow construction of one of the nation’s largest copper mines.

In Utah, the Interior Department may grant final approval as soon as next week to a team of energy speculators targeting a remote spot inside an iconic national wilderness area — where new energy leasing is currently banned — so they can start drilling into what they believe is a huge underground supply of helium.

In northern Nevada, the department is close to granting final approval to construct a sprawling open-pit lithium mine on federal land that sits above a prehistoric volcano site.

And in the East, the Forest Service intends to take a key step next month toward allowing a natural gas pipeline to be built through the Jefferson National Forest in Virginia and West Virginia, at one point running underneath the Appalachian Trail.

These projects, and others awaiting action in the remaining weeks of the Trump administration, reflect the intense push by the Interior Department, which controls 480 million acres of public lands, and the Forest Service, which manages another 193 million acres, to find ways to increase domestic energy and mining production, even in the face of intense protests by environmentalists and other activists.

When he takes office on Jan. 20, Mr. Biden, who has chosen a Native American — Representative Deb Haaland, Democrat of New Mexico — to lead the Interior Department, will still have the ability to reshape, slow or even block certain projects.

Some, like a planned uranium mine in South Dakota, will require further approvals, or face lawsuits seeking to stop them, like the planned helium drilling project in Utah. But others, like the lithium mine in Nevada, will have the final federal permit needed before construction can begin, and will be hard for the next administration to stop.

Whether they are the final word or not, the last-minute actions are just the latest evidence of how the far-reaching shift in regulatory policy under Mr. Trump has altered the balance between environmental concerns and business, giving substantial new weight to corporate interests.

The final push on the mining and energy projects has come in part from senior Trump administration officials, including the commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross, a steel industry investor before joining Mr. Trump’s cabinet.

Credit…Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times

Hours after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told a conservative radio show host that “we can say pretty clearly that it was the Russians” behind the vast hack of the federal government and American industry, he was contradicted on Saturday by President Trump, who sought to muddy the intelligence findings by raising the possibility that China was responsible.

Defying the conclusions of experts inside and outside the government who say the attack was a cybersecurity breach on a scale Washington has never experienced, Mr. Trump also played down the severity of the hack, saying “everything is well under control,” insisting that the news media has exaggerated the damage and suggesting, with no evidence, that the real issue was whether the election results had been compromised.

“There could also have been a hit on our ridiculous voting machines during the election,” he wrote on Twitter in his latest iteration of that unfounded conspiracy theory. He tagged Mr. Pompeo, the latest cabinet member to anger him, in his Twitter post.

With 30 days left in office, Mr. Trump’s dismissive statements made clear there would be no serious effort by his administration to punish Russia for the hack, and national security officials say they are all but certain to hand off the fallout and response to President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.

Mr. Trump’s tweet was his first comment on the hack, which came to light a week ago. Privately, the president has called the hack a “hoax” and pressured associates to downplay its significance and push alternate theories for who is responsible, two people familiar with the exchanges said.

In contrast to Mr. Trump, Mr. Biden has signaled that he will not let the intrusion, whose full extent is not yet known, go unanswered.

“A good defense isn’t enough,’’ Mr. Biden said Thursday, vowing to impose “substantial costs on those responsible for such malicious attacks.”

Mr. Trump’s comments on Saturday had echoes of his stance toward the hacks during 2016 presidential campaign, when he contradicted intelligence findings that it was Russia who interfered in that election. Two years later, Mr. Trump’s own Justice Department indicted 12 Russian intelligence officers.

What no one in the Trump administration wants to address, at least publicly, is how the Russians managed to evade billions of dollars in American-built defenses designed to alert agencies to foreign intrusions. That question, too, now seems certain to be left to Mr. Biden to answer.

Senator Mitt Romney, Republican of Utah, said on CNN’s “State of the Union” that the president’s response was expected because of his “blind spot when it comes to Russia.” But he said he was listening to experts who attributed the attack to Russia.

“What Russia has done is put in place a capacity to potentially cripple us in terms of our electricity, our water, our communications,” he said, suggesting that the United States must respond with a cyberattack of its own.

Christopher Krebs, former cybersecurity chief, said on the same program that he was unaware of the attack at the time that he was fired by Mr. Trump in November. He said that the inability of government officials to detect the attack was because of multiple factors including the old and antiquated information technology systems in use at federal civilian agencies.

“The Russians are exceptionally good at this sort of work, and they found a seam in our defenses,” Mr. Krebs said.

Credit…Voice of America

The Trump appointee who oversees the government’s global media operations is moving to shut down a federally funded nonprofit that helps support internet access around the world, documents show, a decision that could limit people’s ability to get around constraints in places that tightly control internet access, like Iran and China.

The appointee, Michael Pack, the chief executive of the U.S. Agency for Global Media is seeking to restrict the nonprofit, the Open Technology Fund, from receiving federal funding for three years, in part because of a dispute over whether the fund should support work done by the Falun Gong, the spiritual movement known for spreading anti-China, pro-Trump misinformation.

Officials at the fund have 30 days to appeal Mr. Pack’s decision, according to documents. Mr. Pack will oversee any appeal, legal experts said. His final decision must be made by Jan. 19, one day before President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. takes office, the documents show.

Legal experts said that Mr. Biden would likely not be able to immediately overturn Mr. Pack’s decision, indicating it could be months before all legal questions surrounding Mr. Pack’s decision are answered.

The nonprofit, which is funded by the global media agency, helps develop technology that makes it easier for more than 2 billion people in over 60 countries to access the internet. It is known for helping create tools like Signal, an encrypted messaging application, and Tor, a web browser that conceals a user’s identity while logged onto the internet.

Without funding, projects that help provide nearly 1 in 4 Iranian citizens and 10 million people in China access to the internet could be at risk of stopping, the officials added.

“This is the kill shot,” Laura Cunningham, acting chief executive officer of the Open Technology Fund, said in a statement to The New York Times. “Without O.T.F., users around the world will be cut off from the global internet.”

A spokesman for the U.S. Agency for Global Media said that the agency is committed to funding a range of firewall circumvention technologies.

In a joint statement on Saturday, Senator Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee and Representative Michael McCaul of Texas, both Republicans, said Mr. Pack’s attempts to strip the Open Technology Fund of access to U.S. government funding for the next three years, called debarment, would be a significant setback to U.S. foreign policy objectives.

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